Eleanor Roosevelt to John Golden

Dear John:

     I went to the Kabuki Theatre the other day and I thought you would like an account of it since I am told they are planning, perhaps are negotiating at the present time, to bring it to the US next year.

     Mr. Glenn Shaw of our American Embassy here, who has been in Japan for 30 or 40 years, explained the background and story of the play to us.

      On our arrival at the theatre we were shown into a room which, I suppose, was the owner’s room where two Japanese who were also supposed to be authorities met us. These gentlemen later confessed to me that this was their first time in 25 years to attend Kabuki.

     Without Mr. Shaw’s explanation of the background and story itself I would not have understood the play and would not have enjoyed it at all. He explained that the costumes and make-up were traditional and went back to the very early years. In the Noe plays the characters wore masks and they were really for the educated people. Kabuki was the theatre of the masses.

      In Kabuki the heroes come on and off stage along a raised platform through the audience and their names are frequently called before they arrive and they are greeted with wild applause. The stage is very wide and across the back sit the chorus, some of them with a type of three string guitar, others with little traditional drums. They keep up a running commentary as well as the accompaniment. There are also at the ends of the stage, people who rush out at moments and arrange the actors’ garments ― or the actors go over to them. Mr. Shaw said these people sometimes wore black over their faces but they were always a part of the play and some of them were very good actors. They bring the stools for the actors to sit on and take them away again.

     The story was rather amusing. It was about a young lord who is supporting his brother in power but of whom the brother becomes jealous and determines to kill him. The young lord had a very faithful servant, a very big man, who, as they were fleeing through the country, protected him. One day they arrived at a gate where they were going to be barred entrance but they got in through this servant’s persuasive arguments. As they started to leave, however, someone whispered to the local dignitary that he thought he recognized the young lord, whereupon they were immediately called back. In desperation the resourceful servant turned on his young master and told him what a nuisance he was, always being mistaken for someone else and having said this he took his staff and beat him soundly. When the local dignitary saw this, he was so impressed by the servant’s resourcefulness that he said he would think it over, even though he was not convinced. He then leaves the stage and the servant goes through the whole ceremony of asking his master’s pardon. Then the master extends his hand in forgiveness and the servant is so filled with elation he immediately goes into a dance. Finally the local dignitary comes out and brings sake for the servant to drink and allows them to go free. Under the influence of the sake and joy over his freedom, the servant goes into an exhibition of dancing that is really funny and he goes off the stage in a “strong walk” which is remarkable.

     I tried to look at the performance through the eyes of the average New York theatre goer and while I think it will have to be cut, I feel we may have something that is interesting and certainly of historical value.

     I went backstage to be photographed with the leading actor and I don’t know how they bear their costumes; they are so heavy, and the stiff make-up and head dress are as uncomfortable as they can possibly be.

     Without Mr. Shaw’s explanation, the whole thing would be most unintelligible and he is most enthusiastic about everything and looks forward to having this type of art shown in the US and I wonder if perhaps he could not come over with the players and do some of the publicity that would have to precede their arrival, as well as give an explanation on the stage before the performance.

     I am sure if the players are coming to the US, you will be approached about it so I thought you might like to have this account.

     We are now in Kyoto for three days. The trip up here was by train and very beautiful, with wonderful mountain views. At one time the mountains were on one side and on the other the sea. In spite of a grey day, we got a short view of Mt. Fugi.

     Kyoto was not bombed during the war as it was the old capital and not an industrial center. I think Prof. L. Warner begged them to leave Kyoto and Nara intact as being artistic heritages which should not be touched if possible.

     I had a press conference after arrival yesterday afternoon and then I caught up on dictation. Minnewa has gone to look at the shops this morning but by eleven we both start out for meetings with the ladies.

     I should know something about Japanese thinking by the time I come home. I have certainly been given an opportunity to find out I do not believe our administration people will be much interested in anything I have to say. However, the Ambassador has asked me to come in the day I leave as he would like his people to hear my impressions and if I have gained any wrong ones, he promises to put me right.

     I can hardly realize that it will be two weeks tomorrow since Maureen and I set out in the late hours of the evening, but time flies and before we know it we will be starting on our trip to Europe.

     I think of you often and hope you keep well and are enjoying life.

With affectionate thoughts,